Taking care of yourself while taking care of others: Why self-care matters in social work

Limestone College Social Work

As a student pursuing a Bachelor of Social Work, you are bound to juggle the demands of your coursework with the responsibilities of your daily life. As a future social work professional, these demands and responsibilities may become even greater as you become faced with difficult decisions related to client care.

Growing evidence of social workers facing work-related stress has reinvigorated the conversation about self-care — a coping skill that may include various activities and practices designed to relieve stress and improve one’s physical and emotional well-being.

According to one survey, nearly 80 percent of social workers reported that stress is affecting their job performance while only 16 percent said they’ve received training on coping or stress-management. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health defines work-related stress as “an individual’s emotional and physical response to the demands of a job that is incongruent with his or her abilities, resources or need.”

For social workers, the common factors that contribute to work-related stress include not enough time to do their job, heavy workload, challenging clients, inadequate compensation or even moral distress.

Take for example moral distress — a product of a situation where there is a conflict between one’s ethics or professional values and the demands of the workplace. Moral distress can occur at agencies where an emphasis on productivity and profit impedes a social worker’s ability to provide quality care.

A recent Social Work Today article gives an example of a social worker named Natalie whose agency reduced services to Medicaid patients because the reimbursement rate was too low. This caused her to feel conflicted between following work policies and doing what she knew was right — helping her clients regardless of who their insurance provider was.

Frederic Reamer, Ph.D., of Rhode Island College’s School of Social Work and Linda Openshaw, DSW, LCSW, ACSW, of Texas A&M University in Commerce suggest that prospective social workers should become aware of moral distress, its causes and how to recognize its effects. Social work students can prepare to handle moral distress by engaging in role-playing exercises and analyzing case studies that cover ethical dilemmas or conflicting work priorities.

Beyond learning to manage moral distress, aspiring social workers must learn to manage work-related stress in general to prevent job burnout. Today, there are many resources dedicated to social worker self-care including books, worksheetss, support groups and more.

At Limestone College, Bachelor of Social Work students will have an opportunity to practice self-care skills learned in the classroom during their Field Practicum placement — a supervised internship designed to offer first-hand experience of what it’s like to work as a social worker. Meeting and interacting with clients will expose students to real-life challenges social workers face every day while allowing them to hone and build their coping skills.

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